Early in 2018, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan sparked a national conversation by doing something brave.
The NBA stars publicly detailed, with candor, their personal struggles with mental health issues. Love wrote a piece for The Players’ Tribune, titled “Everyone Is Going Through Something,’’ in which he revealed that he had suffered a panic attack during a game. DeRozan’s elaboration came in interviews after a tweet in February of that year in which he said simply, and with some alarm, “This depression get [sic] the best of me . . .”
Their revelations helped move the NBA to the forefront of what has become a welcome and necessary movement in sports to remove the stigma from acknowledging difficulties with mental health. Commissioner Adam Silver told the story at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past March about a conversation he’d had with an NBA star about the loneliness players sometimes encounter.
“He said to me, ‘From the time I get on the plane to when I show up in the arena for the game, I won’t see a single person,’ ’’ said Silver. “There was a deep sadness around him.’’
The NBA’s Players Association launched a wellness and mental health program in May 2018, and progress continues to be made in removing the stigma across sports.
A new documentary, “Headstrong: Mental Health and Sports,’’ which debuted on NBC Sports Boston Friday night (8 p.m.) and will air in multiple encores throughout November, does more than its part to aid in that progress.
What’s especially notable is that the idea for the project began to germinate before the NBA brought mental health awareness to a new level of prominence. The documentary, produced in partnership with Religion of Sports, the Sports Emmy-winning media company founded by Tom Brady, Michael Strahan, and Gotham Chopra, is part of a monthlong, multi-media mental health initiative across various NBC Sports regional outlets.
“I first got the idea to do this in 2013,’’ said Ted Griggs, the president, group leader and strategic production and programming, NBC Sports Regional Networks, “when [former NFL receiver] Brandon Marshall wore lime green cleats on a ‘Thursday Night Football’ game and he got fined by the NFL. I read about it in Peter King’s ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’ column.”
Marshall, who is an executive producer of “Headstrong,’’ wore the green cleats to attract attention to Mental Health Awareness Month. The NFL fined him $10,500 for a uniform violation.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, this is really a great story, and it’s really great that an athlete is doing it,’’ said Griggs, “and then, sort of like a lot of things, you file it away.
“We talked about it a number of times, but when Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan . . . and then Adam Silver talked about [mental health] regarding the NBA, it became a lot more sellable as a compelling story internally.
“People in general were more open to the idea and more open to starting these kind of discussions thanks to those men, and going back all the way to Brandon Marshall.”
Griggs said the NBA deserves credit for opening up the mental health discussion and doing its best to assuage players’ concerns about how discussing their struggles might be received or affect their careers.
“The commissioner has helped create more of a safe space for people to talk about issues that maybe they were afraid to talk about in the past,’’ said Griggs. “Because let’s not kid ourselves — five or 10 years ago, if you admitted some struggles with mental health, even though everybody has these, it could affect you financially, could affect playing time, it could affect a lot of things.”
The documentary, which runs an hour, tells four separate stories of athletes who have faced mental health challenges: Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst, former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, Heat guard Justise Winslow, and former Oregon State men’s soccer player Nate Braaten.
Malarchuk’s story is probably the best-known already, but it is compelling in its retelling, in part because of his disarming frankness. A hard-nosed goalie who played in the NHL for more than a decade, Malarchuk suffered one of the most gruesome injuries in the sport’s history when his neck was cut by a skate blade in 1989.
“I didn’t want my mom to watch me die on TV,’’ he recalls in “Headstrong.” “I told the trainer, ‘Call my mom and tell her that I love her.’ I told the other trainer, ‘Hold my hand because I’m going to die.’ ’’
The fallout from that trauma — as well as the effects of a cruel childhood — led Malarchuk to alcoholism and a suicide attempt. It’s reassuring to see him emerge in a place where he is helping others who have endured similar struggles.
The piece on Braaten, who was inspired to found the suicide prevention program Dam Worth It after an Oregon State teammate committed suicide, is perhaps the most inspirational of the stories. Winslow’s is the vaguest — he discusses “dark times” while sidelined with an injury for most of his second NBA season — but it is clear that he is an inspiration to children in his hometown of Houston, not just because he is a basketball star but because he is a willing listener.
Hurst, who is in his second year with the Ravens, is the first to tell his story in the doc, and it’s the one that stuck with me the longest. He details how he overcame mental struggles that nearly crushed him while he was trying to make it in another sport. He was a Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect, but developed the yips, and turned to drugs and alcohol to cope.
“When I was younger, my form of being tough and being a man was being quiet about stuff and just going about your business,’’ says Hurst. “That changed the older that I got. I went through my own mental health and depression battles.
“Where I am at now, I think reaching out for help is more manly than sitting there in silence and suffering. That’s the true definition of toughness.”
All four athletes deserve kudos for sharing their stories. In each vignette, viewers witness how their honesty about what they’ve dealt with and their accessibility in helping others already is having an impact.
“Headstrong” will have value in that regard, too, and NBC Sports Boston and the other regional networks deserve kudos too for their public commitment to an important cause, one that should never have to be fought in private.